“It’s subversive to be loving, to not be cynical, to just be your genuine self.” –fan describing Natalie Merchant in Paradise is There.
That there has never been a more intense and affecting songwriter/artist/performer was borne out at the premiere screening Monday night at New York’s Landmark Sunshine Theater of Paradise is There, a documentary film that accompanies Natalie Merchant Paradise Is There—The New Tigerlily Recordings album/film, which comes out on Nov. 6.
The release celebrates the 20th anniversary of Merchant’s milestone debut solo album Tigerlily—”the most significant album I’ve ever made,” she states upfront in the film, that “defined me as a songwriter and established this intimate connection between myself and the audience that’s been supporting and sustaining me ever since.”
To use a press release term, the new CD “redefines” all 11 of its songs with entirely new versions, many with acoustic arrangements featuring string quartet. The film employs archival footage, live performance and interviews in tracing the origins of the music and the lasting effect that the album has had over the past two decades.
Merchant attended the premiere, and during a brief Q&A after noted that major motivation for the film came from twin sisters, disabled since birth with a rare skin disorder, who were young fans of Merchant, later friends, and now an inspiration. She said that the Tigerlily track “Wonder,” which is about a disabled child and became an anthem for children with challenges (also Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp’s 25th anniversary theme song—sung by Merchant at the camp to children going through chemo and surgeries) was the “catalyst” of her relationship with the twins, who lived well into young adulthood and on film recounted their relationship with Merchant and how meaningful it was—as did their mother in a new interview for the film.
“I never would have met them if not for the music,” she said. “I know how much more difficult their lives would have been without music. I needed them and they needed me, and I realized that there are all these people with stories: Some are more raw and difficult, with a lot of loss: Life is heavy. Life is painful and difficult. I’ve always had music to help me along that journey, and hadn’t realize that my music had been helping people for a long time.”
Another central Tigerlily song in Paradise is There is “River,” a tribute to River Phoenix, whom Merchant knew and expected to know better. The song condemns the media for its sensationalist coverage of his death, and is performed in the documentary with fiercely emphatic gesturing and interaction with her backup group—in marked contrast to the young Merchant’s wondrously unrestrained dancing.
Reflecting back on her life, Merchant states how she was introverted and introspective growing up in the rust belt town of Jamestown, N.Y. (once known as the “Furniture Capital of the World”) where to maintain sanity she immersed herself in the arts and started singing with what became 10,000 Maniacs—an alternative rock band that earned mainstream commercial success–when she was 17.
Now middle-aged with long gray hair, she was asked at the theater what advice she might give her younger self.
“The young Natalie never listened to advice!” she replied, adding, though, that she doubted she would do anything differently other than “got out of the house a little more, maybe, and collaborate with other people–because I’m a bit of a loner.”
But a loner who impacted the lives of an unusually devoted fan base, and the film includes testimony from some of those fans who likewise felt like outsiders as kids, who grew up with her and her music and still relate to her messages of compassion and acceptance: One fan, who enlisted in the military after 9-11, related how he played her music every night in Iraq, as it represented the exact opposite of what went on there during the day.
After the screening, Merchant, who spoke in the film of her volunteer work with children at homeless shelters, said that she’s working on a free database of “authentic, non-cloying” folk music, “sung by children, for children.”
As it was her birthday, Jennifer Turner, the guitarist on Tigerlily who makes a significant appearance in Paradise is There and was present at the screening, led the audience in singing “Happy Birthday.”
“I do have this thing,” Merchant said, holding up her new Paradise is There—The New Tigerlily Recordings package. As always, she added, “my career really depends on you.”
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